Opinion

A poverty manifesto about the glues, syrups and treacles that get people stuck

John Bird would like to embrace the fluency of Jonathan Swift to highlight how people are trapped in poverty

Portrait of the satirist Jonathan Swift by Michael Dahl

Portrait of the satirist Jonathan Swift by Michael Dahl. Image: Ian Dagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Being an early morning bird, most of my best and worst ideas come before 5am. Earlier patterning around industrial jobs and working as a self-employed printer through the hours of darkness have created that timetable for me. I am a slave to it.  

To recap: last year I was working on ‘It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor’. And would have produced a manifesto-type pamphlet around that subject if it were not for the onset of the Ukrainian war and the hike in costs because of inflation. That flattened my ambitions to broach the deep, deep problems of poverty and how much of a drain it was on the government purse and the public mind.  

Poverty has expanded into the lives of people who formerly were clinging on to some semblance of financial security. Inflation has sunk many boats and I felt it was necessary to concentrate on shoring up the safety nets, making sure the government supported people out of poverty.  

Inflation may have slowed and in cases like fuel reduced, but we are not yet out of the woods. We have to keep those safety nets working full time. We have to continue to campaign in these pages and elsewhere for support to prevent families slipping into homelessness. We have to insist on these basic human rights so that another generation is not condemned to the ‘treacle’ of poverty, as I have at times called it.  

‘It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor’ was therefore put on the back burner not for a lack of devotion to the ideas of breaking poverty, but because of a pressing crisis. But my mind has a life of its own and I woke last week with an urgency to grab the notepaper that I have beside me at all times and write down the following: ‘The Social & Political Glues, Syrups and Treacles that Keep People in Poverty’. I was astonished at this early morning arrival, actually 2.30am and therefore ahead of my usual rising hour. From whence in hell’s name did that creep into my mind and wake me from my slumbers?  

I should tell you that the name ‘The Big Issue’ came to me similarly at such an hour and in such a way 32 years ago. I was not eating cheese late at night the night before (in line with the once-held belief that cheese gave you vivid dreams). Nor had I been out on the piss 32 years ago. And nor had there been cheese or wine in my diet that last week.   

(In fact under the influence of my eldest son Paddy, since the New Year I now eat one day and fast the next, meaning I’ve lost about three kilos in the process. I recommend it strongly and am now set to avoid the rotundity I have for years been heading towards.)  The problem with the title ‘It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor’ is that it might be seen as a critique of actually giving support to people in need – that we should cut the support and let people find their own way out of need. Which was definitely furthest from my mind. No, my intention was simply to point out the unhappy reality that we spend circa 40 per cent of government’s total budget on keeping people largely poor.  

So I did need to find another way of saying this. I needed to express myself in a way that avoided any suggestion that I was having a go at people in poverty. So an alternative to the manifesto’s title would be most welcome. And dropping from the dark recesses of night came ‘The Social & Political Glues, Syrups and Treacles that Keep People Poor’. Could that be open to misinterpretation? 

Perhaps the only downside to such a title would be if people thought I was making a comic lightness out of the obstacles and stumbling blocks that are laid in the path of people seeking to climb out of poverty. But then, I thought, I was drawing on the fanciful language of former times, of the early 18th century when another kind of John Bird – Jonathan Swift – used rich imagery to underline deeply set problems. His  A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents (etc) was a satirical take on the thousands of destitute children in Ireland. Suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, that the children be sold as food to rich people.  

I of course am not a satirist, having not gone to a grammar or public school and Oxbridge, but would enjoy embracing the fluency of Swiftian language to highlight a major crisis we have: the stoppages that are placed on exiting poverty.  Will ‘The Social & Political Glues, Syrups and Treacles…’ replace my earlier – and I now believe misleading – title ‘It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor’? I will have to test drive this title, throw it around a bit, try and see if it offends anyone. Maybe there is a glue industry or a syrup and treacle industry body that may decry my making light of their essentially useful products.  I shall keep you informed. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

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